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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Resurrecting the Egyptian

Jul 28, 2023 03:11PM ● By Arlyn Macdonald

When Delta’s Egyptian Theater opened on October 1, 1928, no one knew it would one day become a national treasure. 

During a time when the world was enthralled with all things Egyptian, (Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun six years earlier) the theater brought the magic and glamour of early Hollywood to moviegoers. 

Exciting plans are in store for the theater, located at 452 Main St., as it nears its centennial. The Delta Egyptian Theater Corporation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, recently purchased the theater and plans to make it a downtown entertainment showpiece and attraction for the Western Slope. 

Kelly Anderson, president of the nonprofit, and executive director of the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, holds his vision for the project. 

“I saw the for sale sign, and the more I found out about the history and importance of the theater to the Delta community and the movie industry in general, I wanted to make sure nothing happened to it. I also want to make sure the theater’s great legacy will continue for the next generations,” said Anderson.

 

OPENING NIGHT

In 1928, Delta’s 3,000 residents looked forward to the opening night of the new 725-seat movie theater. Movie theater chain moguls, Denver-based Dickson and Ricketson, decided to build the theater because of the economic boom happening in Delta. The Holly Sugar Company sugar mill and the Delta County Cannery had just opened and a new luxury movie house on Main Street was sure to draw audiences.

Building the two-story theater cost $75,000. The outside of the building was conceived by architect Montana S. Fallis, who capitalized on the world’s fascination with Ancient Egypt by fashioning it in the Egyptian-revival style. 

The building’s interior, designed by Joe Scheffler, had pointed arches, vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling columns, with lighting from wall sconces above Egyptian busts, colorfully painted murals with hieroglyphics and a vibrant stage curtain resplendent with Egyptian figures. 

On opening night, the movie was Paramount Studios’ “The Fleet’s In,” starring Clara Bow, James Hall and Jack Oakie. Music for the silent film was played on the theater’s $12,000 Robert Morgan organ. 


THE GREAT DEPRESSION

The Egyptian sold to Fox Intermountain Theaters in 1929. By 1933, one-third of U.S. movie theaters had either closed or sold.

But when the Depression hit, Fox’s general manager, Charles Yeager, came up with an idea to keep the theater afloat. Delta historian Jim Wetzel explained that’s how the lottery game Bank Night originated. 

The game, which Wetzel said started with the Delta theater on March 2, 1933, drew moviegoers to the theater every week, many hoping to be the winner of the weekly prize drawing. Moviegoers would buy a theater ticket for 25 cents, and people could get an extra entry for each 25-cent purchase from Delta merchants. 

Struggling theaters across the country followed suit, and soon they were filled to capacity. When the standing room was full, people would stand in the street awaiting the drawing. 

Eventually, the excitement wore off, plus Bank Night was under scrutiny for circumventing lottery and gambling laws. 

With the economy steadily improving, the theater hosted stage shows in addition to movies. 

“Many Hollywood actors and actresses visited here,” Wetzel added. 

RENOVATIONS BEGIN

The Delta Egyptian survived the Depression, but Fox closed it in 1959 and put the building up for sale. But interest in the theater continued and it reopened a year later. 

However, by then the theater had fallen into disrepair. 

Renovations began, and in 1968, the theater looked entirely different. More renovations occurred in the 1970s when the balconies were closed and a snack bar and ticket booth were added. Outside, a neon sign and marquee replaced the old projecting marquee.

In 1993, the theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a new restoration project began with a $220,000 grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund. Restoration experts Conrad Schmitt Studios of Wisconsin stabilized the foundation and roof, repainted the walls to their original Egyptian Revival colors, and uncovered the original artwork that had been wallpapered over. 

The restoration’s completion was celebrated along with the theater’s 69th anniversary on October 1, 1997, with a 1920s-themed gala and a screening of the 1927 silent film, “The King of Kings.” A Bank Night drawing was also held during intermission. 

The theater was renovated again in 2009 so it could screen 3D films. 


PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Anderson said the theater is one of only six remaining Egyptian revival-themed theaters in the U.S. 

“In the 1920s and ’30s, there were over a hundred,” he added.

More renovations are underway to transform the theater into a community arts and culture hub. 

“The people of Delta love this theater and share generations of great memories,” said Anderson. “The theater has amazing acoustics for live music. Once the stage is renovated, we can offer movies and a venue for all the performing arts.”

Plans include constructing a new support building on the adjacent lot with a new theater entrance and lobby. The third phase contains plans for a restaurant, art gallery and a green space to host outdoor performances.

The Delta Egyptian Theater Corporation plans to have the renovations completed by 2028, in time for the theater’s 100th anniversary. 

Since January, the theater has been showing weekly movies and hosting concerts, including an opera night, comedian, cowboy poetry, the Banff Film Festival and a documentary film night. 

“We’ve already had 40 events this year with over 3,000 patrons in attendance,” said Anderson. “We currently have seven part-time employees and many wonderful volunteers.”

If you’re interested in volunteering, donating to the theater or sponsoring an event, email [email protected], or sign up for emails at DeltaEgyptian.org.

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